Last Word – Patricia O’Callaghan: Tourism supremo

WORDS: Patricia O’Callaghan PHOTOGRAPHY Supplied - Destination Gold Coast

Destination Gold Coast CEO Patricia O’Callaghan has taken on the city’s top tourism role during one of the industry’s most challenging times. The former CEO of Townsville Enterprise has drawn on her extensive experience in strategy development, advocacy, corporate communications, government, stakeholder and media relations, marketing and a proven record of working with communities to help the city emerge from the COVID lockdown and devastating impact of border closures.

Tell us about your life before becoming CEO of Destination Gold Coast.

It has been an adventurous 10 months on the Gold Coast, having relocated from Townsville with my family (in early 2021) to take the role of CEO at Destination Gold Coast. I had been working at Townsville Enterprise for the past nine years, where I started as the General Manager for Tourism and Events and then was the CEO for the past five years.

It’s been an incredibly rewarding yet extraordinary period so far. It’s been a rollercoaster of a year and there’s been so many highs and lows. But what I’ve seen is the sense of community and standing by each other through what’s been an incredibly difficult time. I honestly believe I have the best job in the world. I work with an amazing team.

As much as I’m excited about the future I also know we have a long road ahead of us, but I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing community to work with. I’m very proud to call the Gold Coast home.


What do you like to do in your spare time?

My family and I love playing tourist and exploring the Gold Coast, eating out and having fun together. I have a 16-year-old son and a husband who’s a FIFO worker, so our time together is precious and we love getting out and about and seeing things when we are together.

It’s been 10 months and we still have so much to see and do. What surprised me most when I moved here is our surreal Australian landscapes being so close in proximity. Within an hour’s radius, we can be on the golden beaches, hiking through ancient rainforest in the magical Hinterland, having a beer in Miami’s industrial precinct or digging into Burleigh’s dining scene.


What are your thoughts on the COVID border closure and could it have been handled better?

I think we’ve got to give our leaders acknowledgement that Australia is now recognised as one of the safest countries in the world. COVID didn’t come with a handbook. I think they did the best they could and the decisions now as we react to new variants and live in a world where COVID is part of our norm will determine what our industry looks like moving into the future.

Queensland has been open for business and we’ve only had a handful of lockdowns. What’s really hurt us is the financial impact when over half of Australia’s population has been in lockdown and unable to travel. The fact that we’ve been able to send our children to school, come into work and retain a relatively normal way of living here has at least helped our way of life.


What has been your biggest challenge as CEO through the COVID pandemic?

The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty. For our industry, it’s planning around the fact that you can wake up in the morning and the world has changed. What we’re realising though is that this is the new normal and we have to adapt. We might need to run this model for quite some time so we need to be ready for anything and have a plan A, B and C. That takes a level of resilience that our industry has shown in spades, but it has not been easy.

I think there’s a real opportunity for the visitor economy to not just rebuild, but lead the repositioning of our city. Especially with the 10-year runway leading up to the Olympics, when the global spotlight will be on us. There will be a way to showcase what the Gold Coast is but also show the depth and substance of our community, our experiences and our people. It means we’re going to have to be bold in our marketing. We’re going to need really strong partnerships with our trade and aviation, but we’re also going to have to think big with our products and experiences. I think the people on the Gold Coast are up to it.

It’s been great to work with the City of Gold Coast and the State and Federal Government and take inspiration, guidance and advice from our private sector. That’s been key. It’s a clear show of confidence when 3000 rooms are under construction. We’ve got new experiences such as rollercoasters, a dive site, the HOTA Gallery and a beach club trial. We’ve continued to evolve even when visitors couldn’t get to us.


What is your favourite restaurant on the Gold Coast?

I can’t choose just one! My local is the Southport Yacht Club and having a beer at sunset there on the water is a big one. Being at Rick Shores or The Tropic, so close to the ocean, is wonderful and enjoying dinner with a view of the skyline at Nineteen at The Star would have to top my list.


What is your perfect day out on the Gold Coast?

I’d start with a run along The Spit early in the morning, then a swim at Tallebudgera Creek with a coffee from a surf club. Lunch would be at Rick Shores and with a beer in Miami to end the day and some live music at Miami Marketta.


What Gold Coast gem have you found in your travels?

The HOTA Farmers and Artisan markets is the gem for me. I love their Hungarian pizzas and stocking up on fresh fruit and veggies for the week. And my son loves the Dutch pancakes.